Cathy Helms: Words of wisdom about book cover design from an expert

This week’s blog guest is designer extraordinaire Cathy Helms with some really good advice about covers!  Cathy lives with her husband of twenty-eight years in Troutman, North Carolina; the house belongs to their cat, they simply live there to open the cat food cans. She earned her degree in Advertising and Graphic Design in 2008, and founded Avalon Graphics in 2009 to focus on book cover design.

Years before she attended college and gained a formal education in the medium, she taught herself how to create graphics for the web and print media using Adobe Photoshop. Her formal education gave Cathy the technical skills required in order to apply her creative talent in book cover design and marketing materials. Cathy is an avid reader and a massive fan of history. If money were no object, she would be off travelling the world.

You will always find a fresh cup of coffee on her desk and music playing while she works her magic on her computer, and Bella the cat is likely knocking things off the desk too.

We are working together on the historical fiction anthology I keep mentioning…

Over to Cathy!

Thank you for having me, Alison! I am thrilled to be the chosen book cover designer for the upcoming anthology project for Betrayal. I would love to share a little bit about the book cover design process with your readers today, and offer some key advice about cover design as well.

I always begin any discussion about book cover design by making this one important statement – ‘Whoever told you that your book’s cover design doesn’t matter, lied.

The old saying Never judge a book by its cover’ is actually misleading at best, because people almost ALWAYS judge books by their covers. Even if you are part of the 1% that does not judge cover designs, your readers are part of the 99% that does. Potential readers pick up books in bookstores based on what they perceive as an attractive cover. If all books were wrapped in brown paper, you’d be forced to make a decision based on the title. But this is not how this business functions. The very purpose of a book cover is to entice – to sell the product, which in this case is your book.

There are exceptions of course, famous and best-selling authors do sell books based on their names alone. But overall, every author out there must rely on an excellent cover, strong marketing, and platforms such as social media, etc. to sell their books. The phrase “Never judge a book by its cover…” is diametrically opposed to the reality we live in today. Bottom line is, your book’s cover design is extremely important in today’s highly competitive literature market.

And if I may further expound on the subject – a typical mistake that I often see made by independent authors is thinking that their cover needs to reflect what they like, and they want to place precise details on their cover that matters to them as the author of the novel. People who have not yet read your book would not know any of the specific details about the characters or plot. A cover does not need to reflect every element of the story itself, but give the potential reader a taste/feel/evoke an emotion so they buy the book to discover those details for themselves.

This is where I come in, as I primarily work with independently and assisted published authors who realize that they need help with their cover.


Where to begin…

I begin by taking in and using as much of the author’s input as possible – often zooming in on key elements that would make a good cover from all of the author’s notes. Then I do my research: look up the book’s genre/sub-genre and see what books are the top selling novels in those genres. I make note of those cover design ‘styles’, and then begin the arduous task of searching for images/illustrations to work with. I spend a good week, on average, doing my research, and then further time compiling a handful of rough design concepts to review with my client. It is also critical that the design follows industry standards, genre trends, and design layout rules no matter the elements within the design or the genre of the subject matter.

Not to get too techie here, but let’s just say that cover design is more than simply placing some type over a pretty photo – if you haven’t heard of InDesign, bleeds, DPI, CMYK, PDF output settings, vector text and kerning, you shouldn’t be doing your own covers. What a graphic designer does entails far more skill and time than most realize.

So, not only do I need to keep up with best seller lists and design trends, I also have to keep up my skill levels in multiple design programs, and stay on top of what all of the printers require as the industry is always changing.

One part of the design process particularly challenging in the historical fiction genre is period authenticity. While there are hundreds of stock agencies and professional photographers offering images to license, many models and sets often have period incorrect pieces in the compositions. For example, I may find a great photo of the White Tower in London to use for a cover layout, but spend hours editing out modern details in the photograph before I can finalize that one part of the design. And more often than not, the model’s hair color is wrong or their eye colour needs to be changed. Long hair verses short hair….and so on.

Hopefully that gives you a taste of the time and skill involved in designing a well-crafted book cover layout.

Overall, my final cover designs are always strong collaborations with the authors while adhering to industry standard practices. As a business professional, I want my clients happy with their covers. As a designer, I want to give the novel its best ‘face’ to help readers pick up the book and read it too – because the bottom line is that a book cover is for your readers, not the author. While book cover design is a process much like walking a tightrope between client demands and buyer trends, it is a very rewarding career for a creative personality with a flair for production and detail.

It was a pleasure chatting about my process and sharing the graphic designer’s perspective in book publishing. Thank you again, Alison, for inviting me! Be safe everyone!

A total pleasure. And thank you so much for such valuable insight, Cathy. The cover you designed for our alternative history collection 1066 Turned Upside Down remains one of my favourite covers ever. It captures the original period and the speculative ‘alternation’ very well indeed. 


Connect with Cathy
On Facebook: AvalonGraphics
On Twitter: @Avalon_Graphics 
On Instagram:
On Pinterest:
Personal website:


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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